“I definitely think we’ve got six months of finding people shagging in the toilets,” is Mike Skinner’s prediction for UK nightlife post lockdown. Presumably with a muffled Who’s Got The Bag, his anthem for the lifting of restrictions on June 21, thumping away in the background.
Sitting in a Clapton pub with friend and collaborator Greentea Peng to discuss her debut album, Man Made, it transpires that this is Skinner’s first time out-out since they last met in person over a year ago. After a BBC6 show at Dingwalls in Camden. He marks the occasion with a tequila, lime, and soda. Peng’s hot toddy is spiked with honey she produces from her pocket.
Before lending her dreamlike vocals to I Wish You Loved You As Much As You Love Him on his 2020 mixtape, landing nearly a decade after shelving The Streets, Skinner knew Peng through mutual friends and Dalston’s late Visions Video Bar. Connected by a shifting relationship with London – Peng grew up between Bermondsey and Hastings while Skinner was born here and raised in Birmingham – it’s talking about Visions, where Peng worked behind the bar, they look most at ease. A venue Skinner likens to Blitz and the New Romantics in terms of relevance, with none of the “don’t step on my trainers” moodiness of the clubs he knew as a teenager.
“It was like the whole scene in one place, not just a subculture,” says Peng. “An Afro-Caribbean social club from the 80s that saw so many scenes, even in the time I worked there. It’s where I met most of my friends. Everyone could come and feel comfortable and I don’t think there’s anywhere like that now. It was a wave.”
Written and recorded against the backdrop of the pandemic, Man Made also navigates a very personal landscape shaped by Peng’s experience of a world dictated by judgy elites and cancel culture. Rather than become overly critical of herself she practices detachment from her songs, treating them as true expressions of how she was feeling in that moment. This is why her often experimental trip-hop never feels forced or desperate to be relevant.
Peng was just seven when Skinner dropped his own first album, Original Pirate Material, but immersed herself in its storytelling later. Looking back over 20 turbulent years since, its impact on Skinner is harder to pin down. The erudite rapper seems happier segueing into an analogy between Raymond Chandler novels and writing truthful lyrics, or explaining how podcasts owe their popularity to heavy industry collapsing in the 70s. It’s maintaining an interest in emerging talent through DJing that keeps him in touch with his youth.
“When you’re young you love music and everything’s straightforward,” he says. “That sounds shit, that’s good, that’s shit. Then somewhere along the way music becomes your job and things like money come along. So, you drop out and end up back at the start. That’s shit, that’s good, that’s shit. Easy for me to say now because I can pay the rent by singing Dry Your Eyes, but it’s nice to have that again. I just listen to music and decide what I like. We all do, right?”
Here, as Peng drips echinacea into her dimple glass and Skinner asks whether it’s CBD oil or THC, they drift from the idea of treating songwriting like woodwork and how tracks only truly mean something when played live, to why smoking weed before shows is a dangerous game.
Greentea Peng: I first heard you on XFM back in the day. I remember listening to A Grand Don’t Come for Free and consciously taking it in at a young age, then coming back to Original Pirate Material when I was older. I played that album beginning to end and felt like I’d done Mandy or something. The story is excellent. It’s poetry.
Mike Skinner: I’m the Tom Jones of geezer garage! I think Spells is my favourite song of yours, but I wanted to ask about Nah It Ain’t The Same on Man Made, where you say it’s hard being a man today. Do you mean human? I don’t think anyone necessarily buys into the patriarchy and thought it was good you were owning mankind because it’s as much a woman’s as anyone’s. Sometimes when you write lyrics you don’t understand the song any better than the listener.
GP: You’re in your own little world when you’re writing. Nah It Ain’t The Same does sound like it’s about being a bloke and I like that it winds people up. Everything’s open to interpretation. I was just trying to reinforce the idea of unity, but my process for the album was quite experimental.
MS: When you do your first album you’ve got lots of ideas. You know what you want to hear and you’re arrogant, in a good way, but you don’t have much confidence. By the time you get to your second album you can do anything. So, I think the first album is creative, the second is confident, and the third album’s shit!
GP: Was there a lot of pressure on you after Original Pirate Material because it was such a banger?
“I’m the Tom Jones of geezer garage!” – Mike Skinner
MS: When you’re young you can ride the wave and tell yourself that you’ve got something to do with it, but you don’t, it’s just luck. I don’t look back. It’s not exactly traumatic, but there’s a lot to unpick.
GP: Who knows if I’ll ever make another one. It’s been a mad year and I had a lot to say and made a lot of music. I struggled with the thought that it’s too long and people won’t have the attention span, but I didn’t want to limit my expression like that. In an ideal world people would listen to all 18 tracks. Certain heads will.
MS: I think people actually have more attention now. When something’s right you find time. I used to have this northern thing of thinking my work had to be of use to stop myself going mad. I had to convince myself I was making something understandable, like a table. Actually, it turns out music is something that rewards you for being surreal. But then I used to think Fake Plastic Trees by Radiohead was surreal until my sister explained it to me.
GP: Depends on what you’re smoking mate! I don’t want to explain my songs anymore. They’re already expressions of a mood or a state of mind, and that’s why I wrote a manifesto for Man Made. It’s unprecedented times and for me it’s a mad album. The experience and events that unfolded were global and personal for me and it was really intense.
MS: I still don’t really understand what I’m supposed to be doing but I’m at ease with that now. You just work hard and the fact that you don’t even know what your job is becomes irrelevant.
GP: Working out what your role is in this version of The Truman Show?
MS: I was trying to be a carpenter at the beginning. I think you become the opposite of your manifesto in the end, you become like your parents. Basically, artists and poets are all wankers so If you’re going to be one just make sure you make a nice-looking table.
GP: You’re the musical Jesus!
MS: Who doesn’t want to be like JC? I wanted to understand everything about my writing, but those weird connections that happen from line to line, you’ll never know how they work, and if you try too hard it’s a vibe kill.
GP: That’s why your stuff’s like poetry. It was sick working with you on the mixtape. I really don’t get gassed unless I rate someone, and I’ve got to work with you, Neneh Cherry, Goldie, people I’ve rated since I was a kid.
“It was sick working with you on the mixtape. I really don’t get gassed unless I rate someone, and I’ve got to work with you, Neneh Cherry, Goldie, people I’ve rated since I was a kid” – Greentea Peng
MS: Ultimately, people want your truthful fictional story. Even then I think a song only really comes alive when you hear it being performed, or in a club. With rap or dance, as soon as you hear it with someone else it becomes an emotional thing. That’s what’s been missing recently. The thing I love about doing festivals is turning a good song into a good memory.
GP: About that video for Who’s Got The Bag, is that supposed to be at a CGI festival you’re at? Aren’t we playing together this summer?
MS: In August, but I’ve got a week of club shows starting on the 21st of June to do first. When I first toured after coming back, we did after-show parties every night and that was knackering. You’re everyone’s night out, every day of the week. At least if you’re touring on a bus your bed is literally outside the venue but if you’re DJing you could be just starting your set at 5am, and for anyone doing a significant amount of drugs nothing good ever happens at 5am.
GP: My spirit loves being on the road, but my body is another thing. The songs are quite wordy, and I smoke a lot of weed so I have to watch my voice. I always have my honey and my potions and my palo santo, then a fat spliff for after. I’m trying not to smoke before shows anymore. I sometimes have to ask the audience for the lyrics. I saw you at Brixton Academy last year and it looked like you were buzzing. Have you ever forgotten your words during a gig before?
MS: You know like when you watch a magician, really good magicians always make something go a bit wrong and tell you that something is dangerous. If you feel like they might die during a trick, when they do it, you’re like wow, they almost died. They didn’t, they just pretended. And I think that’s a bit like forgetting lyrics, it’s not bad to show people that you could almost die. If they think that the wheels might fall off at any time it’s more compelling.
Greentea Peng’s debut album Man Made is out on 4 June 2021. Head here to find out about The Streets’ upcoming concerts.